Morton Subotnick performing with a Buchla synthesizer, Transmediale Festival, Hebbel Theater, Berlin, February 3, 2011. Photo: Sascha Pohflepp.

Morton Subotnick performing with a Buchla synthesizer, Transmediale Festival, Hebbel Theater, Berlin, February 3, 2011. Photo: Sascha Pohflepp.

Morton Subotnick

Morton Subotnick performing with a Buchla synthesizer, Transmediale Festival, Hebbel Theater, Berlin, February 3, 2011. Photo: Sascha Pohflepp.

IN THE LATE 1950s, I was living in San Francisco and struggling to find my identity as a young composer while playing clarinet part-time with the SF Symphony and SF Opera to make a living. I was commissioned to write a score for the Actor’s Workshop production of King Lear and decided to work by manipulating tape recordings. For the music cues, I transformed recorded instruments, and to create the sound for Lear’s famous storm-scene monologue, I recorded and transformed the actor’s own voice. The joy of creating and hearing everything in my studio led me to a kind of epiphany. The traditional composer, like an architect, imagines and creates a blueprint that performers must interpret in order to bring the work to life, allowing others to experience it. I realized that with the audio technology available at the time, a new kind of creative process was possible; the studio-art process, formerly limited to visual art, was now conceivable for music as well. A composer could imagine, create, interpret, perform, and experience his or her music before it ever reached another human. I envisioned that eventually the technology for creation and listening would be advanced enough that, in the same way a painting is transported from the studio to the walls of a museum or home, music would also be able to travel straight from the composer’s studio to the record player in someone’s home. I believed that we had reached a historic moment, were witnessing the birth of a new creative paradigm. By 1961 I had become obsessed with what the future could be. In 1963 I, along with Ramon Sender, commissioned and collaborated with Donald Buchla to create a machine that would be an electronic-music easel for the living room—what became known as the Buchla synthesizer. I never looked back.

My greatest struggle has been to find the appropriate content, or “message,” for this new medium. Today, my work is a continuation of and, hopefully, a fine-tuning of the processes I began in 1961. But, unexpectedly, I now find myself spending more and more time reworking older pieces as the original technologies gradually become obsolete.